For years, “Game of Thrones” has been leaning into the idea that if women got power in Westeros and Essos, the world might be run a little differently. The show has been unsparing in its depiction of the bad decisions made by men in charge, from King Aerys’s (David Rintoul) genocidal madness, to Robert Baratheon’s (Mark Addy) drunkenness, to Roose Bolton’s (Michael McElhatton) treacherous cruelty, to Robb Stark’s (Richard Madden) impulsiveness, to Stannis Baratheon’s (Stephen Dillane) rigid fanaticism. By contrast in the east, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) has led her dragons on a march through Essos freeing slaves and styled herself the Breaker of Chains, along with her other, more conventional titles.
And on Sunday, “Battle of the Bastards” leaned fully into the idea that the revolution that’s coming to Westeros is female. But while the idea that changing the person at the top of the organizational chart — or Meereenese pyramid, take your pick — will change everything about a society is exciting and maybe even empowering. But is it actually true? Both “Game of Thrones” itself and political science suggest that there’s only so much that putting women in power can change things.
On domestic policy, gender appears to make a difference, at least in terms of what issues get raised and what policy changes get proposed in legislation. As Lauren Sandler wrote in 2012 about a study of almost 140,000 pieces of legislation introduced in the House over a 40-year period, “women introduced twice as many bills on civil rights and liberties bills; many more on ‘family’ concerns; and significantly more on labor, immigration, education, and health.”
“Game of Thrones” isn’t exactly taking up issues of paid family leave or education — a world where even building a small, rural church can get you brutally murdered is not yet in a place where we can go deep on social issues. But as the series’ focus on sexual assault has sharpened over the seasons, forcing us to reckon with the consequences of rape for women such as Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), Dany herself and Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), that’s become one area of clear difference for female leaders on the show.
Men, even decent men, may be angry about rape and horrified by the sexual practices of someone like Craster (Robert Pugh), a wildling who rapes his daughters and leaves his male children to be exposed to the woods. But they rarely act to stop rape on either a personal level or one of policy. When Ned Stark (Sean Bean) tries to recover his sister Lyanna, who he believes has been kidnapped and raped by Rhaegar Targaryen, he’s motivated by Lyanna’s broken marriage contract as well as concerns for her well-being. And when the Night’s Watch finally does something about Craster, whose predations they have tolerated in exchange for shelter on long expeditions, he is murdered as part of a general breakdown in discipline, rather than executed as part of a wider campaign against rape.
Women, on the other hand, have prioritized sexual assault, even if it’s just out of the need to protect themselves. Cersei had her husband assassinated. Sansa killed her rapist. Dany burned the Dothraki khals alive when they talked about enslaving her or selling her. And, declaring, “Our fathers were evil men, all of us here. They left the world worse than they found it. We’re not going to do that. We’re going to leave the world better than we found it,” Dany struck an unusual bargain with Yara Greyjoy (Gemma Whelan). If Dany helped Yara get the Iron Islands back, Yara pledged to change the piratical culture that has made the Ironborn a target, forswearing reaving and raping for . . . well, what their economy will consist of next wasn’t quite clear.
But for all that promise, there’s something uneasy about Dany’s behavior in “Battle of the Bastards.” Her first instinct on finding out that the masters have invaded Meereen was to crucify them and essentially to put their civilization to dragonfire; it’s the reaction of a traumatized teenager with some very unconventional weapons to hand, not a mature head of state.
In Westeros, Sansa repeatedly tried to counsel her brother Jon (Kit Harington) about the wisdom of going into battle against the cunning Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) with fewer troops and a considerable psychological deficit (one lesson of “Game of Thrones”: pitting honor against sociopathy usually ends poorly). When he didn’t listen, she didn’t tell him her secret: that she had reached out to Petyr Baelish (Aiden Gillan) for military support. And as Jon broke with his own battle plan and allowed his troops to get caught in a pincer maneuver that turned the battleground into a slaughterhouse, Sansa watched and waited as Ramsay’s forces exposed themselves, only for the Knights of the Vale to sweep down and cut them to pieces.
Dany and Sansa’s tendencies towards destruction rather than diplomacy are certainly of a piece with their personal circumstances. Dany’s whole family was murdered, except for a surviving brother who sold and abused her, and she has no tolerance for people who want to do the same on a societal scale. Sansa was repeatedly raped and tortured by Ramsay, who, as her husband, essentially owned her. She knows his mind and cannot tolerate the thought of his continued existence for reasons both personal and strategic.
But their reactions are also consistent with contemporary political science research, some of which suggests that female leaders get more hawkish as they climb further up in government.
One study, notes Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones in “Changing Differences: Women and the Shaping of American Foreign Policy, 1917-1994,” found “the consistent 8-9 percent gender gap that has made women as a whole more peaceful than men in their approach to foreign policy since the 1960s. But, on the basis of their survey of women’s views within the departments of state and defense, the authors concluded that the gender gap was much less evident in the case of insiders.”
Wags may have compared Hillary Clinton to Dany after a speech in which she scorched Donald Trump and laid out a hawkish vision of her foreign policy. But the parallels are apt; if Clinton does win the presidency and advance the family-friendly social policies that have animated so much of her career, she may do so in part by convincing voters and establishment figures that she would be tougher abroad than any of her male competitors in the race.
“[The researchers] suggested that ‘traditional’ women preferred peace, but empowered women were prepared to play the same game as men,” Jeffreys-Jones continued. On “Game of Thrones,” that means some elite women might be able to make the world safer for themselves. But they may have to consume whole cities in fire and blood to project the strength that will allow them to lead.